Greece was abruptly thrown into the international media spotlight in early 2010, following a discrepancy between its stated and real government deficit figures, an event that served to compound the crisis in the Eurozone. But in the months and years that followed, that attention stepped well outside the confines of finance policy, or the various social reactions it caused, turning to examine a human rights record that was already dismal. Key to this shift was the explosive rise of a neo-Nazi party, from the fascist fringes into the Greek parliament. Though the presence of the far-right was nothing new to European parliaments, Golden Dawn stretched the limits of political tolerance, challenging the Greek state’s capacity for upholding basic norms and constraining vigilantism. This had been witnessed before, when large numbers of immigrants first began to settle in Greece and racist reflexes took the form of hate-speech and violence. By 2013, Golden Dawn was counting a year in parliament, and was already involved in a long list of violent attacks and crass shenanigans, making no effort to hide that it hated two things: foreigners, and democracy. A long overdue antiracist legislation had been in the works since 2011, but it was repeatedly stalled by political stalemate. By the fall of 2013, the political atmosphere was nerve-clenching. And it took a brutal murder to shift things in a new direction.
One murder too many
In the small hours of 18 September 2013, Pavlos Fyssas, a rap musician of leftist political convictions and former dockyard worker and unionist, was murdered by a member of the Golden Dawn party. The incident occurred in Keratsini, a working class suburb of the Greek capital, between the vast Perama shipyards and the Piraeus docks. In the hefty case file he compiled on the organisation’s tactics, state prosecutor Doyiakos reveals the chilling series of events that led to the murder.
Fyssas sat at a cafeteria, watching the football game with friends. He was spotted by a group at a nearby table, who donned military boots, fatigues, and black shirts. The news of Fyssas’ presence were communicated to Golden Dawn’s local branch coordinator, and the headquarters forwarded a mass text message (via laptop), requesting that all members in the vicinity immediately report to the headquarters. The meeting was promptly concluded, and the tens of (armed) members of the local branch set out on their mission. The game ended, and Fyssas and his friends prepared to head off. They were ambushed and beaten by the gang outside the cafeteria. Yiorgos Roupakias approached Fyssas, who was still taking a beating from the other Golden Dawn members. As they held him, Roupakias brandished a knife and stabbed Fyssas three times, once in his left thigh, and twice near the heart. Moments later, the police arrived and Fyssas, bleeding profusely, pointed at the perpetrator, who was promptly arrested as he attempted to drive off in his car. Fyssas was taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. The Doyiakos file claims that the reason behind the assassination was Fyssas’ antifascist political stance and his expressed views on Golden Dawn.
The incident was one in a long string of attacks perpetrated by Golden Dawn in 2013 alone. There are many more in the four previous decades of the gang’s existence. But the Fyssas case stood out in one aspect: the Greek electorate’s then fifth favorite political party had managed to shock even those who had formerly overlooked the organization’s brutalities against foreigners. Fyssas was a Greek citizen, and this meant that neither could the significance of his murder be minimized, nor its circumstances so easily obfuscated. The news quickly reached western European political circles, who had repeatedly expressed their anxiety at the Greek government’s negligence in dealing with Greece’s neo-Nazi vigilantes. In light of the upcoming Greek presidency, Hannes Swoboda, then leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, responded harshly to the news: “Golden Dawn’s openly xenophobic, neo-Nazi hatred even goes as far as murdering political opponents. This is shocking and intolerable by any standards, and more so in a European Union country. Golden Dawn attacking and killing foreigners, immigrants and left-wing activists will not help solve the social inequalities and real economic challenges in Greece. It is crucial that the Greek government and parliament draw clear conclusions and come up with solid proposals on how to stop these violent extremist attacks, including the possibility of banning the party altogether.”
A day after the murder, Nikos Dendias, then Minister of Public Order, forwarded a list of thirty two criminal cases involving members of Golden Dawn to the office of the state prosecutor of the Greek Court of Cassation, for further investigation. Meanwhile, Roupakias testified, and in a flimsy attempt to throw off the accusations, claimed acting in self-defence. He refused formal affiliation to Golden Dawn, adhering to the gang’s internal code. But evidence soon stacked up, and Roupakias had proven to be very active as a member of the local Golden Dawn branch that had Fyssas in its crosshairs. More specifically, he was a member of a hit squad that acted upon direct orders from the party’s elite. Roupakias and his accomplices are still awaiting trial, pending further investigation into the incident.
On 23 September, Dendias ordered an internal affairs investigation, following accusations that police officers were in collaboration with Golden Dawn. Two officers from the top brass were forced to resign, including the chief regional officer for the South of Greece. Another eight officers in key positions were reassigned. In a rare but toned down display of introspection, the police officers’ union leader Christos Fotopoulos publicly acknowledged on the SKAI news network that officers had a soft spot for the neo-Nazi party: “in these last three years”, he said, “a lot of my colleagues have been particularly tolerant when confronted with acts of violence committed by members of Golden Dawn”.
On 28 September, the state initiated a judicial crackdown on Golden Dawn and its leading figures. The gang was investigated on grounds of running a criminal organization in guise of a political party. First came the arrest of the “leader”, as Nikolaos Michaloliakos, founder and head of the gang, was known to his subordinates. He was taken into custody by members of the anti-terrorist squad and was joined by a number of his MPs, and various other members involved in the Fyssas murder and other cases. Among those arrested were two police officers. In a somewhat delayed response, the media shifted their focus on anything and everything related to Golden Dawn. At the helm of this coverage was the daily Ethnos, offering lengthy updates on the organization’s structure, ideology and modus operandi. The newspaper showed particular acumen in its coverage, successfully securing interviews with former members, who had either left years earlier or had jumped ship in the post-Fyssas turmoil that overwhelmed the organization. Golden Dawn’s persistent denial of criminal activity had been assisted, for years, by a disinterest from the media in its accusers. The mask was swiftly cast off, and the ball was now in the courts of justice.
Trial and error
In the nine-page conclusion that propelled the arrests, the Court of Cassation’s Deputy State prosecutor, Charalambos Vourliotis, was adamant: Golden Dawn operates under a hierarchical system known as the Führerprinzip, or “Führer Principle”, which begins with the absolute leader at the top, reaching all the way down to the hit squads, via the commanders and sub-commanders who preside over the local branches and oversee all manner of activities. The organization also follows a rigid military structure, professes an overtly racist ideology and embraces violence as a means of communicating its message, having since 1987, launched a number of reported attacks against immigrants and political opponents, many of which ought to be further investigated.
The Vourliotis document proposed that the investigation take the story from the beginning, that is to say, from the early days of the organization’s existence. This effort mirrored somewhat the investigative work of a team of journalists known as Ios, the Greek for ‘virus’, who began reporting on the organization and its activities decades earlier, when Michaloliakos and his followers restricted themselves to the nationalist fringes, long before they took part in national elections. In those days, the neo-Nazis were free from the anxiety of working on a more polished public image. Quite the opposite, they were determined to differentiate themselves from the rest of the nationalist landscape, with its many pundits and theorists. They invested substantial effort in becoming active on the streets. They did so in the famous 1992 rallies, violently trying to make their mark in the mass hysteria that engulfed the country over the Macedonia name issue. The incumbent prime minister, Antonis Samaras, then Minister of Foreign Affairs under the conservative Mitsotakis government, was a central figure in the geopolitical dispute. In those days, small groups of Golden Dawn neo-Nazis, as they were dubbed by news outlets, carried out a number of attacks against students, leftists and anarchists. Over the years the attacks became more frequent and more calculated, leading to the 1998 homicidal attempt against Dimitris Kousouris, a member of the student left, who was targeted, ambushed and left for dead – the attack was carried out in broad daylight – along with two of his colleagues, following a mere verbal exchange with members of Golden Dawn. Amid the usual police inertia and the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) government’s reluctance to acknowledge the incident’s political gravity, the prime suspect, who happened to be Michaloliakos’ right hand man, disappeared and evaded justice for seven years before turning himself in, to receive a reduced sentence in the appeal court. In an interview he gave to the daily Eleftherotypia in the aftermath of the Fyssas murder, Kousouris, now a professor of Modern History in the University of Crete, looks back at his own story: “They weren’t attacking me, Dimitris, there was no issue between myself and those guys. They attacked someone they saw as part of a broader movement that was taking it to the streets.” The image and activities of the party today were not the same in 1998, when it was what Kousouris called “a bunch of thugs and scabs on the corporate payroll, with clear ties to the state mechanism”, and “involved in deep state operations.”
Meanwhile, Golden Dawn remained faithful to its own brand of rough street activism, in spite of a change of heart about taking part in the elections. Forging an “anti-system” rhetoric that branded all politicians as traitors or “sellouts” to “foreign interests”, Golden Dawn participated in multiple elections, local, national and European, alone or as part of some broader nationalist or fascist coalition. But the results were marginal. The first radical shift in this trend was in the local elections of 2010, when Golden Dawn won a seat on the Athens municipal legislature, having gathered support in those districts where the question of immigration was most divisive.
A lukewarm welcome
Shortly after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc regimes in the early 1990s, Greece welcomed large numbers of immigrants from the Balkans and the former Soviet Republics. Most came from neighbouring Albania, a nation that by the time was practically in shambles. Albanians began crossing Greece’s western borders en masse, often travelling for days on foot, in the hope of finding work in agriculture and construction. By and large, the work was seasonal, and it was informal, uninsured and far below the minimum wage. Most settled in the larger cities, though not few found work in the countryside, taking up all manner of odd jobs in order to survive. In the two decades that followed, some returned, many stayed, and others yet moved on to other destinations.
But if the newcomers were expected to adapt to their new home, their hosts had to adapt as well. Greek society was startled at first, but the nascent economic boom meant that cheap, unskilled labour was needed. For the next decade or so, the word “Albanian” became synonymous with “immigrant labourer”. But it was just as easily used as a slur. Along with all the other foreign nationals that settled in the country in those years, Albanians had to confront the racism and constant suspicion of criminal intent. They came face-to-face with the state’s ineptitude in laying down a functional set of rules on residence and employment. Very few felt sympathetic toward immigrants, and the government, the courts and the police force did little to avert the wave of vigilantism that blossomed in those years. Violence against Albanians became routine, and very frequently, there was murder. Egged on by a media which was in hysterics about immigrant criminality, and subtly encouraged by the police force’s own violent attitude towards foreigners, many among rural communities considered it acceptable to use firearms against Albanians, a notion that proved particularly convenient for employers who owed their labourers wages. One of the more memorable examples of this climate was the story of Palaio Keramidi, a small village in the mountains of mainland Greece: In 1998 the head of the village council declared a curfew on its Albanian residents. The council agreed that it was a measure meant to combat crime. The decision sparked off a judicial inquiry. A year later, journalist Stelios Kouloglou visited Palaio Keramidi with the intent of filming an installment of his own Reporters without Frontiers series. He organized a screening of a documentary about racism faced by Greek communities living abroad. In the conversation that followed, an elderly villager sought to contextualise his peers’ racist behaviour in a way that uncannily seemed to sum up a widespread Greek understanding of racism: “There is no racism in Greece. Racism happens when our property is damaged and we find ourselves under pressure. That’s when racism happens. We Greeks love foreigners.”
Racism does of course exist in Greece, and immigrants aren’t the only ones to have experienced it first hand. Women, homosexuals, Roma, the Muslim minority of Thrace, the slavic speaking people of Macedonia, conscientious objectors and other social, ethnic or religious minorities, have all suffered discrimination and abuse, as the law has time and again failed to protect them from their fellow citizens, or from the state itself. In 1979 the parliament legislated in favour of penalising discrimination against “individuals or groups”, based on their “racial or ethnic background”. The penalties extended from a fine, to a one year sentence for written propaganda, and two years for inciting discrimination, hatred or violence against those categories. It notably also penalised participation in organisations whose activities were discriminatory (in the ways described above). Nonetheless, the law was scarcely ever used. Parliamentarians have, in previous years even admitted ignoring its existence. It has most certainly failed to act as a bulwark against racist crime.
Racism in the engine room
Ιn 2000, journalist and media owner Yiorgos Karatzaferis was expelled from the New Democracy party and founded his own People’s Orthodox Alarm (LAOS) party. His platform was a populist mix of nationalism, anti-globalization and adherence to “traditional” Greek and Greek Orthodox values. Karatzaferis turned to the far right for recruits. In a highly controversial move, he brought Kostantinos Plevris on board, a neo-fascist theorist and politician, an apologist of the military Junta, and a Holocaust denier. The same year, the newly elected PASOK government announced its plans to abolish the field stating a citizen’s religion in state-issued ID cards . This was the perfect opportunity for Greece’s highly conservative Archbishop Christodoulos, to rally the nation to arms. In an attempt to forge a new, more active role for the Greek Orthodox clergy in national politics, he headed two colossal rallies in Athens and Thessaloniki, gathering over a million signatures to push for a referendum (which never materialized). “The Jews”, Christodoulos had told the daily To Vima in March 2001, shortly before losing his greatest battle, “were behind the ID issue”.
The European elections have often proved a good debut for far right mavericks. Karatzaferis’ LAOS party was no exception, winning a seat in the EU parliament in 2004. The party then made it to the Greek national assembly in the 2007 and 2009 parliamentary elections, steering mainstream political discourse ever closer to its own nationalist and anti-immigration agenda. As the fourth most popular party in the 2009 elections, LAOS participated in the coalition government of Lucas Papademos with PASOK and New Democracy in late 2011. But the move came at the expense of the party’s anti-austerity credentials, and in the two elections of 2012, LAOS failed to get reelected, having lost much of its top brass to New Democracy. The void it left was partly filled by the Independent Greeks (ANEL), which, for all their textbook anti-immigrant sentiment and nationalism, were aware that their stronger card was a very populist, anti-austerity agenda. Also vying for LAOS’ electoral capital was the more monolithic, cult-like and activist Golden Dawn.
Meanwhile, the new millennium saw Greece turn into one of the southern gateways into Europe for immigration from Asia and Africa via its eastern border with Turkey. The country was preparing to host the 2004 Olympic Games, and the once more budding construction sector sought labour. As the years passed, foreign nationals gradually populated the capital’s centre, but also the outskirts of port cities on the country’s western coast. Often with no formal options of travel to Western Europe, many stayed. A few years after the Olympics, Greece succumbed to a prolonged economic crisis, and job opportunities were few and far between, for foreign citizens and Greeks alike. Immigration was until then a political point of contention mostly between the far-left and the far-right, but with the onset of the crisis it quickly secured a place in nearly every political confrontation between any two opponents. As the conservative party’s candidate for Prime Minister, Samaras took an overtly militant stance against undocumented immigrants, echoing his party’s anxiety that Golden Dawn vied for the traditionally conservative electorate base. Days before the May election in 2012, Samaras led a heated rally in which he asked for the departure of those he called “illegal immigrants, those tyrants of our society”. After winning the June election, he reiterated his intentions in a press conference: “Entire areas [in Greek cities]”, Samaras noted, had been “taken over by illegal immigrants in the worst possible manner, without the people’s permission, without anyone’s permission.” He reassured the journalists that he’d do his best to “take back” those cities.
The neighbourhoods mentioned by the Prime Minister are the ones that had given Golden Dawn’s Nikolaos Michaloliakos a seat in the Athens assembly two years earlier. That victory was the prelude to his party’s triumphant entry into the Greek parliament and a green light for his henchmen to make their presence on the streets more visible. Their electoral victory didn’t lead Golden Dawn to tone down its antisocial activism and hateful rhetoric. On the contrary, the attacks on immigrants and political opponents were more frequent, and more violent. Golden Dawn even organised a pogrom in the spring of 2011 following the murder of a Greek citizen by two Afghan nationals. They looted immigrant-owned shops and attacked residents, on camera and under the indolent gaze of the police. Golden Dawn took full advantage of the sensationalist media’s equivocal and often pandering approach to the far-right phenomenon to preach an openly racist agenda while thriving on society’s political disorientation, after years of tight austerity measures and a lack of any plausible political solutions. They created a community-oriented facade by running anti-immigrant “citizen councils” in distressed neighbourhoods, while organising informal, “Greeks-only services”, such as daycare centres, nationalist history lectures, food and clothing distribution and blood banks (their motto was “Greek blood for Greeks”). Over 400,000 voters supported Golden Dawn for the first time in 2012.
After the Fyssas murder and the arrests that followed, the organisation’s activity, violent or otherwise, was significantly lessened, as the awe provoked by the incident gradually gave way to more open disapproval of Golden Dawn’s ways and neo-Nazi identity. Antonis Samaras commented on the arrests before a Greek community audience in New York: “As Prime Minister, I’m after unity. You have no right to hate others, to believe in violence, to be a racist, to promote extremism. If you do you’ll find yourself face to face with the Greeks, as we saw back home these last few days.”
Grandiloquent though it may seem, the Prime Minister’s comment was indicative of a major shift in public discourse after the arrests. The concept of racism had been almost absent from public discourse before, and the former reticence of the government and media in admitting its severity suddenly gave way to open admittance. Crime too it seemed, could have a racist motive, a point on which Greek governments had been very blurry. Perhaps such overt condemnations were not necessarily reflective of the electoral appeal of the party, even after the Fyssas incident. Indeed, more than half a million Greeks voted for the neo-Nazi party in the European elections in 2014, a sharp increase in comparison to the 2012 nationals. But by the end of 2013, the political landscape seemed more fertile than ever for bringing a new law to the table, to grapple with a phenomenon whose existence the majority of Greeks had persistently denied for years.
Breaking down the law
Last September, a year after Pavlos Fyssas was beaten and stabbed to death for his convictions, the Greek government decided once again that it was time to act upon its EU commitment to legislate against racism. It would be the fourth attempt in three years. In early 2011 the PASOK government drafted an antiracism law, but the draft mustered so little support that it never made it to the parliament. Before the end of the same year, PASOK was no longer the sole governing power. As part of a short lived coalition government with New Democracy and LAOS, PASOK brought a modified version of the aforementioned draft before the parliament for discussion. The law was debated, but there was no vote, as most of the coalition MPs and all of the opposition made known their intention to oppose it. Two years later, in 2013, the coalition government consisted of New Democracy, PASOK and the Democratic Left (DIMAR), a leftist party created in 2010 by disgruntled members of The Coalition of the Radical Left’s (SYRIZA) more centrist wing. In May 2013, a third draft of the law was submitted for approval by then Minister of Justice Antonis Roupakiotis, a veteran jurist and an independent who was DIMAR’s pick for the position, in collaboration with his Deputy Minister, New Democracy’s Konstantinos Karagounis. At first, the law seemed to enjoy the government’s full support but it was shelved once more. This time, the reason for its demise was the influence exerted by the ultra-conservative Government Secretary General Takis Baltakos, who was later forced to resign when his personal ties to Golden Dawn’s spokesperson were revealed in a video recording.
By September 2014, and in light of the ongoing prosecution of the leader and various members of the Golden Dawn, the government seemed determined to pass the antiracism law, even with a thin majority and without the opposition’s support. It took two voting sessions before the Law for opposing certain types and manifestations of racism and xenophobia, as it was officially dubbed, was passed by the Greek legislature. In the first session the law enjoyed a majority vote. Those in favour were from the two remaining parties of the governing coalition (New Democracy and PASOK) and from the once junior partner, DIMAR, which had stepped down a year earlier. SYRIZA, the official opposition, voted neutral. The rest (Golden Dawn, the Greek Communist Party, ANEL and all the independent MP’s) voted against it.
For SYRIZA, the rising power in Greek politics, a neutral vote signalled a support of the law in principle, but a protest at what was deemed to be the government’s inadequacies on three basic points. First, there was the question of phrasing: the law seemed more likely to prosecute those inciting racist crimes, rather than those actually committing them. Second, the law provided no protection for victims or witnesses of a racist crime, which would effectively dissuade most from reporting or testifying at all (the third draft had included such a provision). Third, there was the question of article two, which caused a fair amount of public controversy. Although the article was primarily meant to penalize denial of the Holocaust, it also addressed unspecified historical events deemed to constitute “crimes of genocide, war, crimes against humanity” and “crimes of Nazism”. The article stipulated that the task of determining which historical events would fit into these categories, would be relegated either to international courts or the Greek national assembly. SYRIZA, along with the Greek Communist Party and scores of university lecturers, considered this initiative a potential trojan horse, believing that it may provide grounds for prohibiting discussion on a range of historical issues, a fear not necessarily unfounded. In a country where the interpretation of historical events had frequently turned into vitriolic rows and media polemics, it was reasonable to expect at least some anxiety from sections of the parliament as to the article in question.
Not surprisingly, the antiracist legislation stood little chance of a broad parliamentary consensus, even on grounds of protecting basic human rights from the rising tide of racism-driven violence on the Greek streets. Before the second vote (a vote on individual articles), the law was altered to include racist intent, thus racist crime. In spite of broad criticism from all sides, there were no further additions or amendments. The final vote (on a roll call basis, as requested by SYRIZA and Golden Dawn) was held on 9 September, with few surprises. Both coalition partners stood by the new legislation, as did DIMAR’s MPs, with the exception of Maria Repousi, a history professor who had drawn fire in recent years from both left and right, as a result of her contentious views on Greek history. The official opposition voted neutral on article one, and against on article two. The law was passed.
A second chance?
Greece now has a law against racism and xenophobia, an addition to a legal arsenal that may indeed prove potent to protect victims of discrimination. But to grasp the more subtle dimensions of policy means to look beyond judicial reform. To apply the law in all cases, and to reform the police force, are essential in confronting the wave of violence and contempt at the expense of foreign citizens. The last few decades have also shown that by and large, Greek society has been particularly resilient when confronted with change and difference. Politicians have scarcely ever received kudos (or votes, for that matter) for progressive reform on so-called ‘nationally sensitive issues’. On the contrary, maverick candidates and old parties alike are routinely rewarded for their willingness to pour scorn on such reforms. The two parties that presided over the past four decades have proven to be inept on a number of occasions, and their political gambles have primed the ground for more populism. It is against this backdrop of toxic political diatribes and violence that such a law may provide some form of assurance to those who need it most. Whether it can lead to a broader re-assessment of values in politics and society remains to be seen.
Golden Dawn has persistently claimed that it is Greeks themselves, and not foreign nationals who are the victims of racism. This shrewd manipulation of language continues to appeal to voters across the country, who are reluctant to accept the omnipresence of racism in society, much less hear out those who have suffered it. If there is today a public discussion on the question of racism, it is hardly a fruitful one. But one can only hope that the experience of recent decades will encourage Greek society to engage in some form of introspection, however reluctant or unpromising. There may truly be progress, when Greek policy-makers will seek to confront such injustices not grudgingly, but as an honest and willing effort to invigorate democracy. Legislating against racism is one thing, and striving towards a non-racist society quite another. That distinction has yet to be made clear. If the old guard needs a reminder that it cannot wait to confront its demons, it is that there are today hundreds of Greek children born to immigrant parents. To take the short-sighted policies that racism has thrived on, and to extend their lifespan, is as foolish as it is pointless. Let us hope the next generation of policy-makers will see this.
(Photo: Themis / Original photo by Rae Allen)